To share Ballard with someone is to bridge unconscious minds. To describe his books is impossible. On the surface, The Drowned World is a post-apocalyptic story about solar radiation, melted icecaps, and the great cities of the Western world submerged in brackish water. But this scientific conceit is a formality, something to explain away the deliberately surreal environment: high-rise towers rising from viscous lagoons, fata morganas of light on the throbbing horizon, gymnosperms and iguanas poised like gargoyles among the heat-warped ruins of civilization. It’s a shockingly languid, sensuous book, a romance to the Precambrian era. I read it mostly at night during a heatwave, but it doesn’t need that context to feel like a half-remembered fever dream.
Driven by heady dreams themselves, the characters in The Drowned World all share an inexplicable urge to move South, towards the equator and, metaphysically, into the sun. Which is where the pulp paperback qualities of this novel break down and The Drowned World reveals what it really is: a tango between the motivations of a lost sacral brain and the higher power of symbol. There’s this idea that if we change our environment, we change our minds: as the Earth reverts to primordial stew, human consciousness seemingly falls deeper and deeper down the brainstem, into more primitive and inarticulate forms. Time slows to a glutinous wah; the sun becomes clock and master. Lizard brain, if you will. Ballard postulates a genetic memory of not only our own species, but the entire unbroken neurophysical history of life.
“As we move back through geophysical time so we re-enter the amniotic corridor and move back through spinal and archaeopsychic time, recollecting in our unconscious minds the landscapes of each epoch…this is no scenic railway, but a total re-orientation of the personality.”
With this fake science, Ballard speculates that cities order man, not vice-versa. Change the container and we ooze into premodern forms, content to gaze into the sun and occasionally dive below the water, to discover, say, a drowned planetarium, great symbol of the human past, recontextualized as a cosmic womb. This scene, incidentally, slays: deep underwater and within the uterine dome of a planetarium sky, our protagonist, Kerans, watches an unfamiliar zodiac form “before his eyes like the first vision of some pelagic Cortez emerging from the oceanic deeps to glimpse the immense Pacifics of the open sky.”
Our pelagic explorer has sunk deeply into the grey sweet mother of us all, and in this moment recalls Socrates’ metaphor, in Plato’s Phaedo, of a fish who gazes up at the sea and believes it to be the sky. Like sea-creatures who believe the void of corroding brine to be the limit of all there is, “we are dwelling in a hollow of the earth,” he says, “and fancy that we are on the surface; and the air we call the heaven, and in this we imagine that the stars move.” For Plato, this is a way of thinking in scales, of remembering that the sky begins at our feet; for Ballard, it represents a gradual, but welcome, contraction of perception back into a pre-evolutionary blip.
The asphyxiating lagoon that was London is, at one point in the novel, briefly drained. The buildings and streets slowly emerge from their amniotic beds, dripping with brine and foul algae. Kerans roams the ruins at night, disembodied and completely unable to come to terms with the sudden return of what this once-ordered city represented: chronological time, form, society, and geographical specificity. The global cataclysm that triggered the floods has, by then, erased the notion of urbanity from human consciousness–made it feel as unnatural as it always-already was. It’s a relief when the levee breaks and the warm oozing tides of oblivion descend once more upon the stage.
The reborn sun dominates: one character goes blind navigating through the jungle to follow it. All of Ballard’s books feel like great unmade films. They are so visual, sensory. We, as readers, are all gazing into the same heat-warped lagoon, but the symbols which jump into our minds arrange themselves differently for each of us. Ballard is deft and unapologetic about his predilection for largely symbolic narratives. For many cultures that use magic, symbols are seen as a type of technology.